THE LAST time Al Jefferson was this svelte was 2006--07, when he had his breakthrough season with the Celtics. After bulking back up to 293 pounds last year to better bang with the likes of Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal, the 6'10" Jefferson shed 31 pounds this summer to adapt to first-year coach Kurt Rambis's transition-based offense. The attack will also feature elements of the triangle (the system Rambis taught for 10 years as a Lakers assistant) and hinge on speedy guards Ramon Sessions and rookie Jonny Flynn's pushing the ball. "We're giving them the freedom to dictate what we do offensively without calling a lot of plays," says Rambis.
This is an article from the Oct. 26, 2009 issue
The lighter, leaner Jefferson should have no problem keeping up. His weight loss has not only made him quicker from end to end and more explosive under the basket—"It's easier to give that first, second and third effort there," he says—but he also replaced that lost fat with muscle in an effort to remain a stout counterweight on defense. Further, the trimmer frame helped Jefferson recover more easily from reconstructive surgery on the right ACL he tore last February. When he buckled, so did Minnesota, which went 7--25 down the stretch.
Still, Jefferson's return—as well as that of guard Corey Brewer, who tore his right ACL last December—hardly guarantees that Rambis, who led L.A. to the second round of the playoffs in 1999, will have a contender. With 10 players under age 25 (including forward Kevin Love, who is expected to miss six weeks after breaking his left hand on Oct. 16) and a roster that turned over by 70% (not including No. 5 pick Ricky Rubio, who will remain in Spain) Minnesota can only hope to make incremental gains.
That's why, as the team builds for the future, Jefferson has to be more than just an inside force. "I expect him to be a playmaker, instead of someone [who] gets 20 points and 11 rebounds, then walks home with a loss," Rambis says. "I'm challenging him to become more complete."
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2008--09 statistics